For those of you who have been following this blog for the last couple of months, you’ll know how excited I have been for the latest album from pianist, Bill Laurance. Aftersun is the third album from the Snarky Puppy member, and is also his smallest scale project. His last two records, Flint and Swift, were performed by pretty large ensembles in order to produce a particularly grand atmosphere. Laurance has downsized for this new project, dropping the strings and brass in favour of a simple quartet, featuring Snarky Puppy frontman, Michael League on bass, Robert ‘Sput’ Searight on drums and Weedie Braimah on percussion. This record is a new direction for Laurance’s compositional style. Its main focus is fusing dance rhythms and grooves with African percussion and then applying that to Laurance’s unique approach to jazz. All of this change has resulted in a finished product that is truly special. No album is perfect, and this one certainly has its problems, but what it ultimately accomplishes is the creation of a sound that is entirely new, but incredibly familiar.
The record opens with ‘SOTI’, a track that does an excellent job of introducing the overall sound of Aftersun. It begins with a bizarre fade-in effect which occurs multiple times during the course of the record, which give the effect of surfacing from being submerged in water whilst listening to music. Following this, what is immediately apparent, is the heavy use of syncopated rhythms which, combined with the strong presence of the percussion and the driving bass line, help to establish the dance-like feel of the project. One of the most enjoyable elements of Aftersun is its manipulation of texture. On ‘SOTI’ this is made apparent through the trading solos between Laurance on piano and Weedie Braimah, as well as through the ending, which strips back the layers of instrumentation until only the percussionists remain.
Where I think this record is at its best, is during the tracks that are more piano centric, such as ‘The Pines’ and ‘Madeleine’. At these points, Laurance’s penchant for fusion is at its most sophisticated, and coincidentally, his performances are at their most emotive. In ‘The Pines’, the bass and percussion are less abrasive and more rounded. Laurance’s playing on this track is clear, defined and full of emotion, not to mention dynamic and dexterous. The piano solo featured here, is probably my favourite that Laurance has ever recorded, with influences from stride piano playing, to the romantic era of classical playing, to more contemporary pianists like Chick Corea. The use of stops on this track really fuels the excitement of listening to it. There are points where multiple instruments drop out entirely, and re-enter for textural effect. This creates some of the most satisfying moments on the record.
‘Madeleine’ is all about contrast. There is a heavier dance feel on this track which is due to the more persistent percussion and the use of electronic sounds. This contrasts with the almost delicate piano line, which creates this uneasy atmosphere where change could occur at any moment. All of this paves the way for an excellent bass solo from Michael League which precedes a series of unexpected key changes. The uneasy feeling created by all of this change, results in a series of pieces that sound like dance tracks but don’t feel like dance tracks. They’re not predictable and they are littered with jazz sensibilities which really get the brain going. ‘Madeleine’ is the perfect example of what Laurance has created on Aftersun: a cerebral, jazz/dance hybrid which demands your full attention in order to truly understand where it’s going.
I found this to be a particularly welcome change to Laurance’s style, as the biggest issue I had with his last record, Swift, was that it was never actively engaging. It was very good at creating, serene, beautiful musical landscapes, but they were never particularly distinct, which made listening to the record as a primary activity challenging, and whilst Aftersun is still like this to some extent, it is much easier to actively listen to it because there are a lot more distinct elements to each track for the keen listener to pick apart. One such track is ‘Time To Run’. This is the longest track on the album (clocking in at 8:23), and is almost minimalist in it’s style. It is a very repetitive track, but it contains a lot of intricate elements that keep it varied throughout. Along with the rhythmic, almost percussive, keyboard playing and the visceral clavinet riff, ‘Time To Run’ is particularly rewarding for attentive Bill Laurance fans. The main piano hook of the tune feels like a reference to ‘Money in the Desert’ from Laurance’s first record, Flint.
Unfortunately, even an album as captivating as Aftersun has its faults. The first of which is the track, ‘Bullet’, which is almost entirely forgettable. This piece has a few cool elements (the percussion is particularly tactile here), but I don’t think that the couple of interesting ideas featured here, warranted a whole track to test them out. Additionally, the album’s final track ‘A Blaze’ is a fantastic tune, but it’s not a great end to the record. I feel like the album’s title track would have been a stronger finale due to it’s particularly powerful harmonic progression and energetic, distorted moog solo. ‘Aftersun’ would have taken the record triumphantly across the finish line rather than falling back onto a comfy chair – secure but not conclusive.
Ultimately, Aftersun is a great record that was born out of a fusion of the unexplored and the familiar. It’s weighed down a little by one or two forgettable tracks and a weak ending, but what it has achieved from a creative standpoint is too significant for those faults to mar the experience as a whole. This project proves once again that Laurance is a creative force to be reckoned with and is one of the most important voices in British jazz today.